Recently, I’ve been reading some two communication books: Crucial Confrontations and Crucial Conversations (I highly recommend them). I’ve been reading these books as part of my own ongoing self-development, to be a better coach, colleague, husband, and person.
One of the lessons these books present is the tendency for humans to fill in knowledge gaps with assumptions. The authors call it “telling our story.” The story in this case is not your life or career journey, but your story that explains why something specific is happening right now.
Consider this example---you apply for a mortgage. The bank is difficult to work with. They keep demanding more and more paperwork, and finally after you think everything is all set, they spring a big rate change on you at the last moment before you are supposed to sign the final papers.
What’s your reaction?
Research shows, your reaction depends in large part on how you feel about the company or person you deal with.
If you like the company, you will be more forgiving. If you don’t, you are more likely to accuse them of doing you wrong.
Think about a time someone you knew got in trouble. Did the news fit your opinion of the person?
“OMG! I can’t believe she would do such a thing! Not her!”
“I’m not surprised at all. Remember that time years ago when he…”
We fill in the gaps with details we assert as facts; opinions actually.
But to us the opinions are as real as fact.
And according to the books, we don’t stop at filling in the gaps. We then act on those supposed facts—the ones we just supplied.
This can be very dangerous.
Here’s a recent example:
For over three years I’ve been involved with a court case with some people with whom I’ve had contentious financial dealings. I don’t think highly of the other parties.
As we neared a settlement, things happened that didn’t always make sense to me. Obviously, this was due to the other party’s trying to mess things up, I told myself.
And when the other party failed to meet a contractual deadline, I was ready to let loose the hounds (lawyers) on them. I’ve got them! Breach of contract! Hahaha!
Wait a minute. Deep breath. I’m writing a story here filled with all sorts of allegations that fit my opinion of them. I have no real explanation for why they missed the deadline. My mind is making this up. I’m creating my story.
I noted one of the communication books on my desk and flipped through it.
I noted questions to ask myself.
· What do I want to happen?
· What do I want out of the relationship?
· What has factually happened?
I asked myself why would the other party miss the deadline. They knew the consequences. The settlement actually favored them (Just to get it done and be done, I compromised).
· How can I learn what’s really going on?
I checked with my lawyer. He was ready to file new motions, but said he would check with the other party’s lawyer first.
Anxious, I decided to call a third party who knew both me and the other and I knew could talk to them. I tried to stay as factual as possible and asked, “Can you ask what’s going on? It’s possible they have reneged, but could there have been a mistake along the way?”
It took only a short time to learn that the other party had fulfilled their part of the settlement. They were totally shocked that their lawyer had not completed everything. Further investigation revealed that a paralegal or associate got sick just before the deadline, was at home, and never completed the final details for both parties. They never told the lawyers they had not completed the work.
Once everyone knew the real facts, everyone felt better.
Yes, someone messed up. But, it was not malfeasance.
Imagine that I had let my story drive my actions. More lawyer work; more filings; more money; more anger on both sides.
Instead of assuming the worst about the other party, I gave them the benefit of the doubt and used a bit of time to investigate.
Much better result.